The name Joe Wright might not ring a bell for the average moviegoer; he’s only got seven feature films to his name (and one of those is Pan, currently sitting at a hot 27% on Rotten Tomatoes). A few blips notwithstanding, since 2005 Wright has delivered some of the most visually lush and impressive filmmaking of recent memory. While his scale may not compete with, say, Nolan or Scorcese, his style is as easily identifiable as those two cinematic juggernauts (case in point: the Dunkirk scene in Atonement, the final shot of Pride & Prejudice, the horse race in Anna Karenina).
His latest film opens this week, and while Keira Knightly is nowhere to be found, Wright’s style is all over Darkest Hour, the richly framed and deeply emotional story of Winston Churchill’s rocky first several weeks as Prime Minister, just as World War II was becoming…a world war. Gary Oldman stars as Churchill, and if you’re thinking “Wait, how does that work?,” you’d be forgiven. Oldman does not, at first glance, remind one of the burly, brusque, cigar-smoking orator who saw the United Kingdom through that scary time in history.
But let me assure you that, in fact, it works magically.
Wright, working from a script by Anthony McCarten (who also wrote 2014’s Theory of Everything), introduces us to Churchill just as he’s about to become the leader of the government, much to the consternation of the majority party and King George VI himself (a scene-stealing Ben Mendelsohn, but isn’t he always?). The film spends the next two hours on just a sliver of time, no more than a month or so, as Churchill, his family and staff are flung head first into a newfound prominence, the weight of the world quite literally on their shoulders. There’s a war getting ever closer to Britain’s shores, and in a sort of serendipitous companion piece to Nolan’s Dunkirk, here we see Churchill, from the underground war bunkers of London, navigating the risky retreat.
Bolstered by his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who serves as a much-needed check to his ego and mood-swings, and a sharp secretary (Lilly James) who quickly learns to keep up with his quirks and demands, Churchill must not only sort out the right orders to send down to the troops who’ve put their lives in his hands, but also how to keep at bay an internal coup attempt by fellow politicians plotting to end his tenure early. Historical as the film is, the events of the month are not so much the point here; anyone with passing knowledge of WWII knows what happened at Dunkirk and the rousing speech Churchill delivered at the time, likely turning the tide of the entire war.
What’s more impressive here, then, is the way Wright and Oldman tell this piece of the story, the way the film visualizes the seemingly impossible decisions Churchill is forced to make, the understandably nerve-wracking circumstances with which he’s confronted. In lesser hands, Darkest Hour may’ve remained a fine historical biopic with another fine portrayal of Churchill. With these two, however, we’re elevated out of that mediocrity and into a visual delight anchored by an award-worthy performance.
Wright’s inventive (and sometimes frenetic) scene set ups (brought to life by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, with credits like Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis and Francofonia to his name) come just up to the edge of being bothersome without ever tipping over into that abyss; his tracking shots are big and bold, carrying us from the air to the ground and back again. We circle around the table as politicians debate their next move. We fumble around in bed as the portly Churchill works, propped up by a pillow, and swoop in to Parliament for a heated debate.
During an attack on an allied stronghold in Calais, there’s a particularly chilling, entirely seamless pan from the burning buildings to what it takes a moment to realize is a fallen soldier’s wounded face. It’s a stunning shot, and it’s far from alone in a movie packed with them. The simple act of making a phone call (to FDR, who we only hear on the other end of the line) from a secure extension in a small booth is filmed in such a way that it becomes an allegory for Churchill’s isolation and desperation in these most trying of times, a stark contrast to the bombastic, confident leader legend has made him.
The sum of these masterful parts doesn’t quite add up to a perfect whole, as the emotional punch of the film hits in disparate, albeit impressive, moments rather than as a cohesive offering. And yet, Oldman and his ensemble deliver such committed, solid performances in scenes realized so meticulously and beautifully by Wright’s unique vision, Darkest Hour ranks high on the list of must-see Churchill biopics. And even higher still on the list of must-see films of the season.